Today, millions of older Americans are experiencing a higher quality of life by taking an active and positive approach to their personal wellness. They are enjoying improved health and successful living by becoming self-educated, personally responsible and proactive. The most successful are those who adopt a whole-person wellness model, addressing the needs of the body, mind, and spirit.
Most people know about the research that shows that regular exercise provides a wide range of health benefits and, perhaps most importantly, can preserve function and independence. Fewer realize that their choice of exercise activity can produce another host of unexpected benefits. By choosing mind/body exercises, such as yoga or soft martial arts (like Chi Gung and T’ai Chi), older adults can unleash even greater health and vitality.
Yoga and Chi Gung (as well as all other soft arts) are ideal choices for older adults because they positively affect the whole person: body, intellect, emotions, and spirit. They increase vital energy while strengthening and soothing the body, focusing the mind, and nurturing the spirit.
The ten best reasons older adults need a mind/body practice are:
Body – Caring for the body improves health, preserves your ability to function and preserves independence. Yoga and Chi Gung offer powerful protection from falls – a major threat to older adults!
1. Strengthen Muscles and Bones… Yoga especially builds muscle strength and bone mass. The vital weight-bearing postures of yoga stimulate the bones to retain calcium. In yoga, both the upper and lower body receive the benefits of bearing weight, unlike walking or running.
2. Improved Heart and Respiratory Health… Chi Gung and the soft martial arts have been shown in studies to improve circulation, heart health, and respiratory function. Yoga breathing exercises are very powerful tools to increase respiratory function, breath capacity and physical energy. Both increase vitality and sense of well-being.
3. Increased Flexibility… Yoga and Chi Gung both increase overall flexibility, contributing to improved everyday functioning and mobility, and protection from falls. Despite popular notions, you do not need to be flexible to practice yoga. The idea is to practice at your current level with patience and compassion, gently becoming more pliable.
4. Better Posture… Good posture calls upon our new strength and flexibility to keep our spine healthy and strong. Healthy body posture supports digestive and respiratory functions as well. Poor posture in combination with osteoporosis leads to stress fractures.
5. Improved Balance… Balance gives older adults the confidence to move freely and to engage in physical activities. One of the most important parts of a senior fitness program is balance training. Seniors who exercise and practice balance activities, like those found in yoga and Chi Gung, can avert the devastating effects of a fall – the
second leading cause of accidental death for seniors. Balance is an intangible force that many people take for granted.
6. Increased Energy… Yoga and Chi Gung are, in essence, ancient renewal and balancing systems for our vital energy. More than the sum of their parts, these practices gently revitalize the body. The term “Chi” itself means “energy”, and “Chi Gung” literally means “energy work”.
Mind - Challenging the mind is crucial to staving off diseases like Alzheimer’s. Be sure to stimulate your intellectual dimension through learning new information and exploring topics that require judgment and decision-making. The physical aspects of a mind-body practice lead directly to a mental sense of rootedness, stability and balance.
7. Intellectual Stimulation… Learning a mind-body exercise is like learning a new language with its own vocabulary and rules. It takes focused attention. It is a practice…a journey of exploration. Yoga and the soft martial arts also invite us to explore a way of thinking that may be very unfamiliar to us.
8. Emotional Support… The philosophies infusing yoga and Chi Gung encourage us to be mindful of the present moment, to be aware and grateful of all around us, and to let go of our attachments of how we think things should be. This positive outlook leads to a sense of calm and well-being.
Spirit - A new study shows that once people retire, they adopt a new sense of time and their place in the world as their values and beliefs begin to change. Adding a spiritual dimension to your exercise activities offers additional wellness benefits. In addition to yoga and Chi Gung, consider nature walks and ‘mindful’ strength training and meditation in all forms.
9. Connecting with the Big Picture… A mindfulness practice is a direct way to practice connecting with a truth larger than ourselves. Practicing becoming quiet and receptive allows our inner wisdom to be heard. Older adults have indicated a desire to search for “the meaning of life”. Practitioners of yoga and the soft arts create a deep sense of richness and unity in their lives.
10. Inner Exploration… Central to the spiritual dimensions of the older adult is the desire to explore the inner self. Beyond the physical exercises of yoga and Chi Gung, they challenge us to look deeply at ourselves, to “be” with ourselves. We learn to celebrate our strengths and forgive our weaknesses while practicing patience and focused concentration.